Beer stories and bedtime for gonzo

“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
–Leo Tolstoy

It’s been a long, strange trip, hasn’t it?

The first brewing insurgency of the modern American era began at New Albion Brewing Company, which began operations in Sonoma, California, in 1976. Auspiciously, a revolution in beer was spawned in the very same year as America’s Bicentennial celebrated the culmination of a previous uprising.

As a casual student of history, I’m aware that almost inevitably, revolutions consolidate into their own systematized pecking orders, even as they mature and gravitate toward future appointments with reinvention (arguably the best case scenario) or, more often, messy counter-revolutions.

Maybe we’re witnessing one or both of these outcomes just now in the world of beer.

These days, what used to be known as microbrewing bears the designation of craft beer, and in terms of consumer recognition, the siren’s call of mainstream acceptance beckons. If this weren’t the case, there’d be no Blue Moon or Shock Top, those sleek mockrobrews designed and distributed by mass-market brewers for the express purpose of pilfering craft brewing’s vibrant foundational imagery for the benefit of shelf space and engorged multinational shareholders.

Yet in fairness, there’d also not be a Sierra Nevada factory perched incongruously amid the Appalachians, or Lagunitas situated on both the Pacific and Gold Coasts. When it comes to robber baron capitalism, pecking orders frequently can be brutal, and maybe we’re not doing so well with our own foundational imagery if it the misty mythology no longer seems worth protecting.

Not everyone sees it this way, and the fact that I persist in doing so clearly marks me as an aging craft beer militant, one whose radical worldview was shaped by an active desire for better beer, close to home, amid a denuded landscape of ridiculously limited choice. There were fewer than 100 breweries in the United States when I attained legal drinking age in 1981; more than 30 years later, the number is 2,500. The beer scene has mutated beyond recognition and comprehension, and the revolutionary cadres have splintered into multiple spheres of specialized interests.

A homebrewing culture analyzes beer by ingredients and methodology, espousing a “brew it yourself” ethos, while traders and swappers revel in the mechanics of the chase, the art of the deal, and the joy of collecting.

There is a priestly ratings caste trumpeting the presumed exactitude and objectivity of language in quantifying beer, and a localist persuasion embracing the personal, grassroots experience of craft beer in the context of places and people.

On widely scattered occasions, albeit rare, these spheres even manage to overlap. I’m an ardent localist, with an asterisk:

For those of us who grew to beer-turity prior to the Internet’s incursions, when social media was a figment of Dick Tracy’s wrist radio – the downtrodden tightly clutching dog-eared books written by the late beer writer Michael Jackson and anointing him as a reliable guide for pursuit of the perfect pint — one of the most important aspects of craft beer is the ability to tell a good story.

Jackson excelled at it. He was a journalist by trade, and relentlessly factual in his approach, yet a sheer delight in storytelling is his primary legacy, especially through a knack for linking good beer with interesting people in specific places. At the end of the day, what else is there?

I found myself reacting to these stories first by repeating them, and later, augmenting them with embellishment from personal experiences, the latter gained initially by traveling, and later by operating my own pub. They became personal foundational beer tales, tied inextricably together, addressing the past and advocating the future.

In 1992, the pub itself represented the logical conclusion to my quest. What we needed in my hometown was a beer culture of its own, one embodying the litany of who, what, where and why. Elements of other beer cultures could be adapted and deployed toward this end, but the objective never was to “be” Bamberg (to cite one example). Rather, it was to create a milieu that would provide a local experience similar to Bamberg, primarily for those of us living here, and also for those who’d like to come visit. Eventually, we’d have our own brewery, which would be the apogee; locally brewed beer as restorative and springboard.

Central to all of this was, and is, storytelling. Nowadays, quality craft beer storytelling is hardly dead, although I fear it’s gone into some manner of cryogenic hibernation. In the present time, craft beer enthusiasm is expressed with a throwaway brevity, defying any true depth of feeling; miles-wide, inches-deep. Social media affords an abundance of minimal exposure, trivializing and often eliminating context. Beer lovers check in, tweet, post and rate – and yet they hardly ever tell stories.

I find it profoundly sad.

Consider the typically triumphant craft beer photo on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. Usually it’s a hard-to-find beer from a highly rated brewery, the further from home and harder to source, the better. The beer’s “proper” signature glass is strategically situated, half-filled and seductive.

Unfortunately, what’s missing are human beings and an explanation for why any of it matters, and the end result is craft beer objectified, little more than accumulated beer porn to the practicing fetishist, without any need for an accompanying story because fellow beer narcissists are expected to already feel the tumescence of the titillation, and automatically shift into fully salivating Pavlovian mutt at the first glimpse of the visual prompt.

As Billie Holiday sang long ago, “Them that’s got shall have, them that’s not shall lose.” Me? I don’t root for the haves. Underdogs are way more appealing.

I’m tired of losing, not in the superficial sense of final game scores or reds and blacks on a bank balance sheet, but from acquiescing for far too long in a process whereby the collective I’ve spent a quarter-century assembling somehow tosses away the thread of its own narrative.

Rather than gaze longingly upon someone else’s masturbatory beer glass, I’d rather be able to tell the story of why the liquid in the glass is important, assuming it still is – and to be perfectly honest, there are times when I have serious doubts as to whether any meaning remains to be examined, although as a contrarian of long and sincere standing, I’m honor-bound and forever obliged to doubt and re-examine even those precepts nearest and dearest to my heart.

However, what I know beyond a shadow of doubt is that in the year 2014, it is time to tell more stories, not fewer, and to remove craft beer from its selfie-induced vacuum by relating it to the real world outside. Stories build community by reinforcing beer’s local foundational origins, and stories just might be the best way to reach the next 10%, absent the pomp, circumstance and end-zone chest-thumping that has come so infuriatingly to define and bastardize the genre.

In order to complete the journey, perhaps we must come back to town, back to the origins, and back to the notion of there being no such thing as strangers, only those who haven’t yet become friends. Maybe the best way to become friends is to have a chat, not compare soiled raincoats.

Just think: Quite possibly, there’s something left to learn.

Illustration by John Spencer (Creative Commons)

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